Paragraph unit helps middle schoolers improve content reading

Schoolkids in classroom. Girl reading task aloud at lesson.Teaching with Paragraphs

One word of advice for educators who want to help middle school students become  better readers and writers: paragraphs.

In a recent study in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, researchers tested a lesson cycle on helping students to identify the main-idea sentence in a paragraph.  The students had to learn how to differentiate sentences that provide supporting detail and sentences that present a main idea.

After a 5-week cycle, researchers report that students improved in their ability to identify the main idea by almost 30%, based on pre-test and post-test results.

Good readers and writers have to be able to identify the main ideas in paragraphs, but the typical textbook provides few opportunities for students to practice this skill, say the researchers.  Exercises on identifying main ideas, text structures and signal words that provide cues on the purpose of the paragraph use isolated sentences, so students rarely learn about the relationships among these elements.

Holistic Approach to Teaching

Teachers often resort to advising students to assume that the first sentence of a paragraph is the main idea, but first sentences, of course, are not always on the main idea.

The use of individual sentences to teach main ideas and supporting details decontextualizes important skills and fails to teach students the relationships among topics, main ideas, and supporting details,” the researchers write.

Paragraphs have 5 major types of structures for organizing information, the researchers explain. They are:

  • generalization
  • sequence
  • compare and contrast
  • cause and effect
  • problem and solution

Text structures have signal words associated with them, which helps students to identify the various structures, the researchers write. Sequence paragraphs, for instance, often contain the signal words “first”, “next”, and “finally” to indicate the order of events.

The words, “because”, “since”, “consequently”, and “as a result”, are signals in cause-and-effect paragraphs.  In compare and contrast paragraphs, one is likely to see these words and phrases: like, similarly, on the other hand, however.

Successful readers are aware of the different types of paragraph structures and their corresponding signal words,” the researchers write.  “They learn to use their recognition of text structures to find the main ideas and guide their understanding of the text.”

A Paragraph Intensive Lesson Cycle

The 5-week lesson cycle tested in this study to improve students’ comprehension and expository writing consists of 4 parts:

  1. vocabulary words
  2. text structures
  3. modified sentence completion activity
  4. rewriting texts.
  • Vocabulary words. Students are given words-in-context exercises to help them develop the important ability of guessing at the meanings of unknown words.  They use their dictionaries to check their guesses.  Then students generate their own sentences using their new vocabulary.Text structures. The teacher presents students with the different types of text structures, and models methods for separating the main ideas of paragraphs from the supporting details.  The teacher shows students how to look out for signal words such as next for sequence paragraphs or because in cause-and-effect paragraphs.  Students are taught to recognize that the signal words point to details rather than the main idea, the researchers write.Modified sentence completion activity. Students complete a fill-in-the-blanks worksheet that includes 10-12 sentences. Only half of the sentences are related to each other and form an expository paragraph. Students complete the sentences with the correct vocabulary word and find the related sentences that create the embedded paragraph. Then they identify the sentence on the main idea and arrange the sentences in a logical order.Rewriting text. In the final step, students take the paragraph and summarize it in their own words to demonstrate their comprehension. Students may simply replace the author’s words with synonyms and antonyms of their own or they may add their own supporting details to expand on the text in their own words. This exercise aimed at improving students’ expository writing   also increases their level of engagement.

    The Results

    The 61 6th- and 7th-graders in the study were tested 3 times: At the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the lesson cycle. The tests consisted of booklets, each containing 12 paragraphs from reading and language arts workbooks for grade levels 5-8.

    The paragraphs provided examples of the different types of expository text structures.  The main idea could be found in the first sentence in half of the paragraphs and in the last sentence in the other half of the paragraphs.  Students were given 30 minutes to complete the test.

    The mean percentage of main ideas selected correctly on the first test was 59.32% and 77.86% on the final test. Students showed marked improvement in correctly identifying when the main idea occurred in the last sentence of the paragraphs over the 5-week lesson cycle.

    This study limited placement of sentences with main ideas at the beginning or at the end of paragraphs. Future studies could test additional placements and examine the impact on the quality of expository writing or  on content area comprehension.

    “A Lesson Cycle for Teaching Expository Reading and Writing,” by Jose Montelongo et al., Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, May 2010, Volume 53, Number 8, pps. 656-666.

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